2020-21 Reader Views Literary Awards Bronze Medal Winner
In the chaotic days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration made a dubious decision affecting hundreds of Axis diplomats remaining in the nation’s capital. To encourage reciprocal treatment of U.S. diplomats trapped abroad, Roosevelt sent Axis diplomats to remote luxury hotels—a move that enraged Americans stunned by the attack. This cause célèbre drove a fascinating yet forgotten story: the roundup, detention, and eventual repatriation of more than a thousand German, Japanese, Italian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian diplomats, families, staff, servants, journalists, students, businessmen, and spies.
Such Splendid Prisons follows five of these internees whose privileged worlds came crashing down after December 7, 1941: a suave, calculating Nazi ambassador and his charming but conflicted wife; a wily veteran Japanese journalist; a beleaguered American wife of a Japanese spy posing as a diplomat; and a spirited but naive college-aged daughter of a German military attaché.
The close, albeit luxurious, proximity in which these Axis power emissaries were forced to live with each other stripped away the veneer of false prewar diplomatic bonhomie. Conflicts ran deep not only among the captives but also among the rival U.S. agencies overseeing a detainment fraught with uncertainty, duplicity, lust, and romance. Harvey Solomon re-creates this wartime American period of deluxe detention, public outrage, hidden agendas, rancor and racism, and political machinations in a fascinating but forgotten story.
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About the Author
Harvey Solomon is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He is the author of three nonfiction books, including Book of Days: ’60s: A Day-by-Day Look at the Pop Culture Moments That Made History. He has written articles for dozens of publications, including the Boston Herald, the Los Angeles Times, the Hollywood Reporter, and Variety.
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On the Diplomatic Front Lines
On the balmy spring day of April 28, 1937, a small group gathers for a farewell dinner at a house one block from Rock Creek Park. It's a leafy neighborhood of stately homes and sizable lawns, at least by the cramped standards of row house-dominated Washington DC. Congresswoman Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected to the Senate, lives next door. Outside there's nothing to distinguish this comfortable two-story yellow brick house in the 5300 block of Colorado Avenue NW from its neighbors. Inside it seems rather ordinary too, save for one conspicuous non-American decoration hanging over the mantelpiece: a large autographed picture of Adolf Hitler.
For its renters are silky-smooth embassy counselor Hans Thomsen and his wife, Annaliese. They're hosting this dinner to honor departing ambassador Hans Luther, Hitler's first envoy to America: an effusive fellow with a seemingly endless store of after-dinner jokes. Chubby and bald, he looks like the burgher on a beer stein. That's actually one of his favorite roles, hosting the embassy's popular annual Bierabends where staffers dress in Bavarian costumes, a band plays, and dexterous waiters — some clutching a half dozen mugs in one hand — serve up the suds 'til 3:00 a.m. Last year's beer night, actually a propaganda party in raucous disguise, drew a couple hundred revelers, including congressmen and newsmen. "Luther's roots were in old Germany, his class was the upper bourgeoisie," wrote Helen Lombard, both a member of the diplomatic set and a chronicler of its labyrinth ways. "He could sell the new regime by making it appear not too dangerously unlike the old."
Yet four years after his arrival, peddling the Third Reich in America is becoming an increasingly hard sell — even in a city with so many isolationists and Anglophobes eager to swallow the bait. As Hitler's expansionist agenda is gradually becoming less cloaked, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop has determined that the fifty-eight-year-old ex–Weimar Republic official is no longer the most appropriate messenger. No, Berlin wants an equally unthreatening but younger, fresher face to represent the new Germany. And tonight's host (and hostess), among other junior embassy staffers, are auditioning for the starring role.
Born in Hamburg on September 14, 1891, Thomsen was the second of four children; he had older and younger brothers and a younger sister. His mother, Elisabeth, was German, his father, Carlo, a Norwegian banker. "He comes from a wealthy, cultured family and has had a broad education," wrote Bella Fromm, a Jewish Berlin-based reporter. "He speaks seven languages, having been all over the world. He is quiet, reserved, and well liked by the diplomatic set." His fluent English, spoken with an Oxford accent, can be a bit unnerving to people meeting him for the first time; it came courtesy of the family's English governess.
Thomsen graduated from Heidelberg University in 1913 and earned a law degree two years later. During the Great War — a term then used interchangeably with the World War — he served in the kaiser's army and forever thereafter, like many fellow soldiers, carried an engraved metal cigarette case as a reminder. Afterward he entered the diplomatic service and spent time in Albania, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia before serving Hitler directly as a minister in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. At a party in 1933, Bella Fromm found that his "suave elegance" contrasted sharply with the plain-looking führer, who kissed her hand and engaged her in some stilted conversation. After he'd moved on, she asked Thomsen if Hitler had a cold. "Why?" he asked. She replied, "He's supposed to be able to smell a Jew ten miles away, isn't he? Apparently his sense of smell isn't working tonight." Thomsen laughed, but not before casting a quick look around to see if anyone had heard.
An international journalist, well-traveled Venezuelan T. R. Ybarra, interviewed Mussolini once and Hitler twice during the early thirties. The second interview was arranged by Thomsen, whom Ybarra astutely measured as the chancellery brimmed with armed, strutting storm troopers. "These toughs contrasted ludicrously not only with their Fuehrer," wrote Ybarra, "but with the officials left over from the pre-Nazi era who were going about in regular, tradition-hallowed toggery as if ashamed of being in such company, looking — and doubtless feeling — like fish out of water. (When I showed the foregoing words, just after I had first typed them, to Hans Thomsen, he fixed wide open eyes on me and asked: 'Do you mean me?')"
Thomsen's wife is called Bébé, which is French (the preferred language of diplomacy) for "baby." Her parents, Emil Oskar de Niem, a soldier in the kaiser's army, and Anna Barth, married in 1885. Annaliese was born on February 26, 1892, in Torgau, and her brother, Hans Dietrich, who like his father became a soldier, in December of 1893. With six uncles and two aunts, the de Niem children had many cousins and playmates growing up. She attended a private girl's school in Switzerland and learned English, French, and Italian. Serving as vice consul in Naples after the war, Thomsen commissioned an artist to make a bust of his head. Intrigued by the portrait of a young woman the artist was painting, Thomsen asked to meet her. The artist arranged a small party, the two hit it off, and a year later they married.
In the papers Bébé's usually referred to as Hungarian, though her "auburn locks and black eyes often cause her to be mistaken for a Spaniard or an Italian." Similarly, her blond husband is invariably described as Norwegian, an inaccuracy he never corrects. In the coming years, as the American press continually refers to their nationalities as something other than German, the Thomsens don't mind; the reporters' sloppiness subtly reinforces the benign, friendly image that their bosses in Berlin are so eager for their emissaries to convey.
Conversation tonight might touch upon one of Luther's most recent difficulties. Last month, when discussing the upcoming 1939 World's Fair, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had slammed Adolf Hitler: "I'd have a chamber of horrors and as a climax I'd have in it a figure of that brown-shirt fanatic who is now menacing the peace of the world." His remarks touched off a firestorm on both sides of the Atlantic, with Thomsen hand-delivering a protest to the State Department and German newspapers viciously attacking La Guardia, whose mother was Jewish but was raised Episcopalian. "Dirty Talmud Jew Becomes Impudent," shouts the headline in Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi Party's official newspaper.
A disagreeable situation most definitely, but nowhere near as ominous as an international event that's most certainly not on the menu for discussion tonight. Two days ago Spain's bloody civil war between its Republican government and the nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco burst into horrific worldwide view. Out of nowhere, planes swept down on the Basque village of Guernica during its busy once-a-week market day. Bombers dropped high-explosive and incendiary bombs; fighters raked the panicked crowds with machine-gun fire. Sixteen hundred civilians were slaughtered, more than a third of the village's population; thousands more were injured. The town was obliterated. (The attack was immortalized by Pablo Picasso, who immediately created a huge mural-sized oil canvas entitled Guernica. Unveiled that summer in Paris, it initially garnered little attention but has since become recognized as a potent representation of war's destruction of innocent lives. When Picasso was living in occupied Paris during World War II, a Nazi officer visiting his apartment saw a photograph of the work and asked, "Did you do that?" To which Picasso replied, "No, you did.")
The reason for targeting a sleepy town with no strategic military value was unknown, but the perpetrators were not. The subhead of today's front-page story in the Washington Post reads "Planes Allegedly Piloted by Germans Mow Down Civilians on Clogged Highways." The planes were not just piloted by Germans; they were German planes from the Condor Legion, a specialized division of the Luftwaffe. The raid was a real-life exercise to test and perfect its lethal aerial warfare. Several years later those tactics help power Nazi assaults across Europe, so overwhelming they'll introduce a fearsome new word into international lexicon: blitzkrieg, or "lightning war."
Every advance of the Nazi war machine will put another obstacle in the path of its envoys abroad, culminating in a conflagration that will eventually kill an estimated fifty million civilians worldwide. But the war's still several years away. Tonight is simply another chapter in the polished game of diplomatic musical chairs: the departure of one ambassador, the pending arrival of an unknown replacement. Though Hans Thomsen is too junior to be in the running, he and Bébé are prime operatives who personify Nazism's propaganda of sweetness and light. And the unsuspecting American press is lapping it up. "Herr Thomsen and his attractive wife are a great addition to the diplomatic corps," gushes society reporter Beth Blaine, who goes on to lavish especial praise on Bébé Thomsen. "Frau Thomsen is lovely looking, with dark, slanting eyes and masses of black curly hair, and she is a delightful hostess. Seldom have we seen so many delicious things to eat."
Why, tonight alone she's set out a spread of — wait a minute! What's that she's wearing? Could it be ... moving?
Yes, perched on her shoulder is a squirrel. A red squirrel she reportedly brought over from Europe, "an adorable little creature," continues Blaine breathlessly, "with tufted pointed ears and a great bushy tail!" His name is Bienchien, and not to be confused with Peterkins, their cocker spaniel that Thomsen is showing this weekend at the annual National Capital Kennel Club in nearby tony Chevy Chase. Yesterday the Post ran a photograph of Thomsen, in a flowered dress and wearing a single strand of pearls, holding the pooch.
Bébé Thomsen may be new to America, having sailed into New York harbor early last January aboard the SS Hansa. But her inordinate love of animals — even at the risk of others — is lifelong. Several years ago, when Thomsen was still stationed in Berlin, the couple befriended reporter Fromm, a courageous act in a country ostracizing Jews decree by decree. "Baby, his wife, is a merry, vivacious brunette with a passion for animals," Fromm wrote. "I remember once when I was visiting the Thomsens, I started to enter her dressing room. Suddenly, Tommy [a nickname for Hans Thomsen] shouted, 'Don't go in there! You'll get bitten!' When I asked what would bite me, he explained that Baby had a monkey that had been biting everyone. 'In fact, he bit me this morning,' said Tommy in a resigned voice."
Stateside, the energetic if somewhat eccentric Bébé immediately plunges into the capital's de rigueur social scene. Though every city covers society, it's invariably a sidelight; here in the nation's capital it's the spotlight that never dims. "Some like it, some don't, but it's a must," writes W. M. Kiplinger, who later becomes best known for imparting financial advice in his namesake publications. "Society is a main course. In the city on the Potomac, where government is the biggest business, official position is more important than charm, money or background in winning friends and influencing people."
From the outset Bébé displays très chic attire. At a cocktail party given by the counselor of the Swiss legation, Dr. Eduard Feer, and his wife, she's the only woman besides the hostess to merit a sartorial description: "Frau Thomsen, who is tall and attractive, wore a smart costume topped with a fox-trimmed dark velvet coat." Four and half years later, immediately after Pearl Harbor, Feer will again host the Thomsens — and, indeed, the entire German delegation — but under far less happy circumstances.
Tonight, while the Thomsens are hosting and toasting the departing ambassador at their home, another old-school German envoy is pursuing a far less social but equally vital Nazi mission. A few miles south, Lieutenant General Friedrich von Boetticher, fifty-five, is lecturing at the Munitions Building, steps from the Lincoln Memorial. Hitler's first military attaché, a respected veteran of the Great War, is a pompous extrovert who hides in plain sight. He's a sanctioned observer of the American military whose stiff appearance is ripe for caricature. "A short, plump man of porcine features, with horizontal creases across the back of his neck, his reddish hair kept in a brush cut, he was often seen strolling the streets in full uniform with riding breeches, boots, monocle, his thick chest heavily ornamented with Nazi medals and insignia," wrote cub reporter David Brinkley, years before moving from print to broadcast and attaining fame for his fifty-year career as a television newsman.
Actually von Boetticher never wore his hair in a brush cut or affected a monocle, but he did grandly strut a two-way street: supplying details of the German military to U.S. War Department officials in exchange for similar information about American armed forces. An officer (the highestranking foreign military official in America), scholar (with a keen knowledge of U.S. history), and gentleman, von Boetticher kept his fourth vocation — spy — as well as his virulent anti-Semitism — well hidden. Speaking perfect English thanks to his American-born mother, he ingratiates himself with many senior U.S. military officials who feel Germany had been treated unfairly after the Great War and are quietly more sympathetic to their former enemy than to England or France. He was "an evangelist who proclaimed an identity between the United States and Germany with himself as the bridge," wrote biographer Alfred M. Beck, "as indefatigable in his technical study of the American army as he was in courting its favor."
On this late April evening, the staid von Boetticher is in his element: addressing an audience of U.S. Army reserve officers, rich with potential contacts for obtaining further military information. He waxes eloquent about the Battle of Tannenberg, a Great War encounter in the East Prussian marshes in August 1914 in which the outnumbered Germans outmaneuvered and crushed their Russian opponents. His job entails considerable travel; he receives VIP tours of U.S. military bases, research installations, and plants producing aircraft and weaponry and dutifully sends reports back home. He also visits battlegrounds near the nation's capital, often accompanied by a fellow Civil War buff, Colonel George S. Patton.
Von Boetticher entertains lavishly at his turreted brick and stone mansion in the 3200 block of R Street NW on the upper edges of Georgetown, a home some liken to a nineteenth-century German castle. Next summer, for example, he hosts a garden party for the son of Henry "Hap" Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, to celebrate the boy's acceptance to the U.S. Naval Academy. Von Boetticher lives with his traditional wife, Olga, and their three children. The eldest, Adelheid, will move out in June after marrying a fellow medical student. Their middle child, troubled son Friedrich Heinrich, recently arrived from Germany. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his adolescence, and he and his friends had gotten into trouble by criticizing the National Socialist government. Ordered to report for compulsory sterilization, he finally got approval to emigrate thanks largely to his father's influence. But his first years in the United States prove rocky, and his unbalanced mental state could lead to draconian punishment if he ever returns to Germany.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Such Splendid Prisons"
Copyright © 2020 Harvey Solomon.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Dramatis Personae Author’s Note Prologue 1. On the Diplomatic Front Lines 2. Rivals and Arrivals 3. Soirees to Spies 4. Inactive Vigilance 5. Reverberations of War 6. Isolation versus Intervention 7. War Wary 8. Full Speed Ahead 9. Executing an Exodus 10. Fenced Inn 11. Moving Daze 12. (Not So) Happy New Year 13. Watched While Waiting 14. Quiet Desperation 15. Life at the Homestead 16. “But Still They Complain . . .” 17. Twice Removed 18. A Feud Renewed 19. Homeward, Unbound 20. Perplexing Passage East 21. Home Aghast 22. Vichyswap 23. Last Grasp Afterword Epilogue Acknowledgments Notes Bibliography Index